Roosevelt's Beast: A Novel

Overview

Roosevelt's Beast is a reimagining of Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt’s ill-fated 1914 Amazon expedition: a new novel from the acclaimed Louis Bayard

1914. Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida, the River of Doubt. Plagued by hunger and suffering the lingering effects of malaria, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and the other members of the now-ravaged Roosevelt-Rondon scientific expedition are traveling deeper and deeper into the jungle. When Kermit and the Colonel are kidnapped by...

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Roosevelt's Beast: A Novel

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Overview

Roosevelt's Beast is a reimagining of Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt’s ill-fated 1914 Amazon expedition: a new novel from the acclaimed Louis Bayard

1914. Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida, the River of Doubt. Plagued by hunger and suffering the lingering effects of malaria, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and the other members of the now-ravaged Roosevelt-Rondon scientific expedition are traveling deeper and deeper into the jungle. When Kermit and the Colonel are kidnapped by a mysterious Amazonian tribe, they soon discover the price of their freedom. They must find and kill a ravenous beast – a beast that has never been seen and that leaves no tracks.

With his characteristically rich storytelling and a touch of old-fashioned horror, the bestselling and critically acclaimed Louis Bayard turns the well-known story of the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition on its head and anatomizes the demons that can haunt us from birth to death.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/20/2014
Teddy Roosevelt’s calamitous 1914 Amazon expedition with his son Kermit provides the background for this richly atmospheric novel from Edgar-finalist Bayard (The School of Night). The prologue, set in 1943 Alaska, makes plain the toll taken on Kermit, who, even years later, hallucinates that he sees skin and flesh peel off a friend’s skull. The main narrative chronicles the circumstances leading up to Kermit’s mental deterioration, as the difficult conditions of their trek to map the course of the so-called River of Doubt prove too much for Teddy. Kermit had just become engaged, and was successfully involved with developing the Brazil Railway Company when he was roped into joining the expedition. The ordinary rigors of travel through the rain forest pale in comparison with the danger posed by a legendary beast that disembowels its prey and that the locals believe to be connected with the North Americans. The predictable resolution makes this less successful than Bayard’s more complex intellectual thrillers. Agent: Christopher Schelling, Selectric Artists. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“Bayard describes the toll on survivors [of the Roosevelt/Randon expedition] with wonderful dry wit...A mystery in the Arthur Conan Doyle tradition, had Sherlock and Watson been masochistic enough to volunteer for this dreadful trek…Bayard gives us a compassionate, unsentimental portrait of a son who would forever live in the shadow of a colossal father.”—Washington Post

“Louis Bayard’s imagination is as wild, uncharted, and magnificent as the Amazon, and his tale is as lush as a rainforest. I loved Roosevelt’s Beast and was under its spell from Bayard’s wondrous – and haunting – first sentence.” –Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls

"[Roosevelt’s Beast] never fails to deliver chills and peril in a claustrophobic jungle atmosphere…This journey into the heart of darkness strikes enough notes that a variety of readers will find an element to tempt them, whether it's the terrifying unknown or the simple desires of the human heart."—Shelf Awareness

“Bayard’s heart-of-darkness saga is impressive—blood and sacrifice, primitive peoples and Roosevelt courage.… [He] exactingly chronicles the hardships of charting the river, right down to the damp, dangers and drudgery of the Amazonian jungle… [Roosevelt’s Beast] is a suspense-filled re-imagining of history deepened by a confrontation with evil’s supernatural presence.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Bayard has written a riveting thriller and psychological study wrapped around historical events and people and gives the reader a real existential puzzle to put together.”— Elizabeth Dickie, Booklist

“For the past decade or so Louis Bayard has been taking the subjects of ‘genre fiction’—from Gothic murder to jungle adventure—and rejuvenating them with all the skills of a literary novelist. Roosevelt’s Beast combines dizzying narrative energy with real psychological subtlety and stylistic elegance.  It’s an immensely satisfying book.”—Thomas Mallon, author of Henry and Clara and Watergate: A Novel

"Louis Bayard's gift is to seamlessly merge careful research with the fantastic, the horrible, the sublime, and the universal. Roosevelt’s Beast is an adventure story in the grand style, from a time when the rivers of the Amazon jungle were as unmapped as the depravity of the human heart—had Kipling ever turned his mind to the horror genre beyond short stories, this gripping novel might have been the result."

–Lyndsay Faye, author of The Gods of Gotham

"An edge-of-your-seat thriller with all the twists and turns of an unexplored river, Roosevelt’s Beast is also something greater: a triumphant proof that the truths of art can surpass those of history."

–Kermit Roosevelt III, great-great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, and author of In the Shadow of the Law

Library Journal
12/01/2013
In March 1914, Theodore Roosevelt and his troubled 24-year-old son Kermit join an expedition to explore the uncharted Rio da Dúvida (the River of Doubt) in Brazil. Guided by Teddy and jungle explorer Cândido Rondon, the company finds progress to be slow, as rapids, falls, whirlpools, and other obstacles bog down the adventurers. When food runs short, Teddy and Kermit violate rules by leaving the river in search of prey. As night falls and the dense jungle closes around them, the two are kidnaped by members of a primitive tribe who refuse to release them until they kill a legendary beast that eviscerates its victims without spilling a drop of blood. Thus begins a descent into malarial delusions and madness as the line between nightmare and reality vanishes. Is the horrific beast they seek a creature of nature—however savage—or a demon who invades souls and devours from within? VERDICT Bayard (The School of Night) describes this skillfully crafted novel as "a psychological fantasy built out of historical events." His nightmarish tale, reminiscent of Scott Smith's The Ruins, will appeal to fans of Dean Koontz and all those who like their adventure tinged with horror. [See Prepub Alert, 9/9/13.]—Ron Terpening, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-09
Bayard (The School of Night, 2011, etc.) draws dark fiction from the real-life Roosevelt-Rondon 1914 exploration of Brazil's Rio da Dúvida. Bayard exactingly chronicles the hardships of charting the river, right down to the damp, dangers and drudgery of the Amazonian jungle, but it's the physical and emotional trials of Kermit, Teddy Roosevelt's son, that drive the story. The 20-something Kermit has been sent along to protect his boisterous father from his own recklessness. Kermit worships his father, but he also feels a strange kinship to his wastrel uncle, Elliott, the family's black sheep. Famous names and true-life exploration aside, Bayard's novel captures a great adventure, with the expedition navigating in cumbersome dugout canoes, running short of food and fighting off malaria. Danger enough, but then Teddy wanders from camp while hunting for food. Kermit follows protectively, and the pair are captured by Cinta Larga, a tribe of cannibals. The tribe is being plagued by the "Beast," a thing that kills "beyond malevolence." If the Roosevelts kill the Beast, the tribe will set them free. Bayard describes tribal life realistically, employing a young female character, the bilingual Luz, a missionary group's only survivor, to bridge cultural barriers. Teddy and Kermit kill the Beast, which seems to be a large howler monkey, but then Kermit glimpses "the look of boundless sorrow in the howler's eyes and realizes an evil entity has leapt from the howler into a nearby human. Bayard's heart-of-darkness saga is impressive—blood and sacrifice, primitive peoples and Roosevelt courage. Kermit's powerfully drawn in the expedition, in his inextricable link to the Roosevelt name and in his sad decline in 1943 Alaska. Luz and the Cinta Larga are believable, as are Rondon and the exploration party. Teddy, however, seems one-dimensional, all Bull Moose–San Juan Hill, no matter how dire the circumstances, leavened only by his love for his son. A suspense-filled re-imagining of history deepened by a confrontation with evil's supernatural presence.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250053114
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/20/2015
  • Pages: 320

Meet the Author

Louis Bayard is the author of the critically acclaimed The School of Night and The Black Tower, the national bestseller The Pale Blue Eye, and Mr. Timothy, a New York Times Notable Book. He has written for Salon, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt

1

 

 

He slept to it, and then he woke to it. Rain.

Steaming down the balloon-silk fly tent. Gushing through the trees. Pounding the river.

None of the fat greasy drops of last night but a hissing cataract of water, monotonous and unceasing. And then, from the buzz, a single silvery note emerged, followed by another, then another. And from Kermit’s brain, the first bubble of consciousness rose up.

Christ.

The bugle’s notes fell away, and he would have followed them back into sleep if the tent hadn’t shaken. His eyelids squeezed apart. In the granular light of dawn, a heavily muscled black man was crawling toward him, smiling as he came.

“Bom dia.”

It was Juan. Somehow managing to contain in one hand three aluminum cups and the handle of a steaming pot. He began to pour, and as the smell of the coffee came coiling through the damp air, Kermit felt reality settling in its hooks. He was here. The coffee was pouring. Juan was smiling his soft, abashed smile.

“Obrigado,” Kermit muttered.

“De nada.”

The camarada crawled back out. For another minute or two, Kermit lay in his cot—already half sopping, for the morning breezes were blowing the rain straight in. With his fingers, he interrogated the sores on each of his legs: all the garden-variety bruises that, through infection, had acquired ideas above their station. Then he mapped the scorch marks of last night’s mosquitoes—a cluster on the elbow, another on the ankle, a necklace around the collarbone. There was one particularly prominent ridge above his right eyebrow, as if a whole regiment of mosquitoes had stayed through the night, feasting.

I should have offered them brandy, he thought dazedly.

“Is that coffee, Roosevelt?”

As usual, Dr. Cherrie had woken without a fuss, his eyes—dry and calm—swinging open to the light, his hands lacing together under his head. He lay in the next cot, gazing up at the bulge of water in the tent’s roof.

“It looks very like coffee,” said Kermit, handing Cherrie his cup.

“Well, that’s something.”

The two men were silent for a time, listening to the rain.

“Good weather for ducks,” said Kermit.

“And who knows what else?”

This was not idle bravado. Cherrie was the in-house naturalist and was always on the lookout for new species to catalog. With a light groan now, he swung his legs toward the ground. “Shall we wake him?”

“I suppose.”

“Seems a shame,” said Cherrie, studying the humped snoring figure in the third cot. “He needs his sleep.”

“We all do.”

“But when I think how he used to be when we started. Every morning, up before dawn.”

“I know.”

“Used to wake up the bugler.”

“It’s true.”

Kermit knelt by the sleeping figure. Touched the forehead and felt the current of heat rising through his fingertips.

“Still running high?” Cherrie asked.

“A bit.”

Kermit leaned in to the sleeping man’s ear. Made at first to whisper and then simply spoke.

“Father.”

Gasping, clutching his blanket, Colonel Roosevelt wrenched toward the sound. His white lips slackened. His naked, mole-like eyes twitched in the dimness.

“It’s all right, Father. It’s Kermit.”

Several seconds passed before the intelligence seemed to break through.

“Of course you are,” said the old man. He raised himself onto his elbows. “You must … give me some time to … shake the cobwebs out.”

“Reveille has sounded.”

“Has it, now?”

“Your coffee’s here.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” With a coo of something like pleasure, he folded his hands around the cup. “Still hot. God bless you, Juan.”

He took two short sips, then another. Then, as he studied his two companions, the first smile of the day crawled through the brush of his mustache.

“Raining, is it? Well, never mind.”

Waving away his son’s proffered hand, the Colonel tipped himself out of the cot and spilled toward the ground like a pile of luggage, wincing a bit when his left leg landed. He reached into the damp sock he had wrapped around the tent pole and pulled out his spectacles. Wiped them on the sleeve of his pajamas and then, with great and painstaking care, slid the glasses up the bridge of his nose, waiting for the world’s edges to rush in.

“March,” he declared. “The fifteenth.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and fourteen.”

“Indeed.”

“Third Sunday in Lent.”

“Yes.”

“I officially declare it: As good a day as any!”

He said the same thing, of course, every morning. And every morning Kermit silently composed the same reply. Another day in hell.

He used to reproach himself for his irreverence. But now it had become a form of survival. And a sign, too, a welcome sign that some aspect of him still remained apart.

The old man took a few more sips of coffee, waiting for the blossom of heat and acid. Then he raised his eyes toward the sky.

“I like a bit of rain first thing. Cools things off.”

“Certainly,” said Cherrie.

“And cooler oarsmen are happier oarsmen, are they not? Therefore more productive. I shouldn’t be surprised if we made twenty-five kilometers by day’s end.”

“Could be,” said Kermit.

“Thirty!” said the old man, rising to it. “Mark my words!”

Kermit and Cherrie made no reply. After all these weeks in the South American wilderness, they were able to indulge the Colonel so far and no further.

“Here,” said Kermit, reaching under the old man’s cot. “Your spare drawers, Father. And you might as well use this handkerchief; it looks a bit fresher than the others.…”

“I’m certainly capable of dressing myself. You needn’t—I’m not a—damn me, where have I put my specs?”

“On your face.”

“Ah!” He giggled. “So they are! Never mind, let’s be dressed and be off. Stiffen up the sinews, ha! Summon up the blood!”

*   *   *

THEY ATE IN A full downpour. It was almost a blessing that breakfast was so sparse. A handful of rice, a handful of beans. Biscuits hard as gneiss.

To think—try as he might, Kermit couldn’t help it—to think how much food they had brought with them! Fresh ox meat and sliced bacon and sardines and chicken and pancake flour and potatoes and malted milk. An entire case just for spices and condiments. In the early days, if a curious native had happened to wander out of the forest with a request for olive zest or grapefruit marmalade, the members of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition would have been happy to oblige.

But after they passed Tapirapuã, the midday meal was excised from their schedule. Breakfast and dinner shrank down to rations. “All this life,” Cherrie said. “And nothing to live on.”

Even so experienced a hand as he had expected to find a horn of plenty waiting in the jungle. Fruit and nuts for every meal. Pigs and deer. Dolphins and otters and boatloads of fish. A groaning table, night after night. Instead, they had … moss and bromeliads and epiphytes and tree roots. Insects.

And this strange lightness that followed them wherever they went. As though their bones were being hollowed into bamboo.

Kermit peeled away the fringe of mold from his biscuit. Began to toss it away, then caught his hand in the act of throwing and shoveled the whole thing into his mouth. He chewed and gummed it down until it was just a dry paste, then let it slide down his throat and drop, plashing, into his stomach.

Through the falling rain, he heard Colonel Rondon’s cry:

“Iniciar as Ordens do Dia!”

The Orders of the Day. No different, Kermit knew, from the Orders of the Day Before. Row until something stops you. (Something will.)

Even as the camaradas rose from their Japanese-wrestler crouches and stood in respectful silence, Kermit yawned and turned toward the jungle. The morning fog was melting from below, and the dark base of the forest came blurring out of the vapor like a section of old oil painting bleeding through the new.

“It’s time,” said Cherrie.

Kermit nodded, and together the two men helped the camaradas drag the canoes toward the water. Cursing, as they did every morning, the sheer crazy heft of the things, each weighing more than a ton, and first thing in the morning or last at night, it felt like two.

It would have been easier to bear if the beasts were seaworthy, but they sank nearly to the waterline. They were impossible to steer. They leaked water. The seats were hard and rough and wet. The more Kermit reflected on these massive hollowed-out tree trunks, the more they seemed to epitomize the whole misbegotten adventure.

The sand slipped beneath him, and as he struggled to keep his balance, the dugout crashed into him, touching off a prairie fire of pain that blazed up and down his shin. Biting down on his own cry, he soldiered on—and became, for the first time, aware of the two figures standing by the river’s edge.

The Colonel and Colonel Rondon, gesticulating in the falling rain—their private conference made public by the Colonel’s high squeaking roar.

“Plus vite! Plus vite! We must go plus vite!”

Even if the Colonel’s voice hadn’t carried, his French would have. A bizarre non-Aryan sort of French, no tense or gender. But it was the one tongue he shared with Rondon, and when an expedition has two leaders, they must find common ground somewhere.

The Colonel’s tone at once grew more civil but no less urgent. “Je m’incline, il faut dire, à votre connaissance supérieur, mais les observations. Peut-être ils prennent trop de temps?”

“Ah, oui,” replied Rondon, more quietly but every bit as distinctly. “On doit examiner la question.…”

We must consider the question. Which, as the Colonel well knew, was Rondon’s way of discarding the question. Rondon would no more dispense with his hourly sightings than with the daily ritual of hammering a painted hardwood signpost into the forest floor. He may have stood only five feet and three, but to his men—in his own mind—he was geological and eternal, and the main reason he and the Colonel remained cordial after all these weeks was simply this: The Colonel still considered himself Rondon’s guest.

“Merci pour votre considération,” said the Colonel. He nodded pleasantly and squared his shoulders and made as if to walk away but stopped and lowered himself, by stages, toward the earth, where even now a felled section of couratari tree was rising to greet him.

“Father?” called Kermit.

The Colonel was already waving him away.

“Not to worry! Doing a spot of surveying!”

So he sat there. Sat for long minutes, studying the river. The river that was killing them.

*   *   *

THE RAIN HAD STOPPED by the time they got on the water, and as soon as the camaradas drove their oars in, the first shard of sunlight broke through the clouds. A small swell of laughter and applause rose up from the men—until Colonel Rondon frowned them into silence.

As usual, Kermit took the head canoe. Right behind him, Colonel Rondon and Lieutenant Lyra. Then the two baggage balsas and, bringing up the rear, Colonel Roosevelt, Dr. Cherrie, and the expedition’s physician, Dr. Cajazeira.

In the early-morning hours, the sun didn’t have the brassy glare of midday but a softer, silvering touch. It drove the chill from Kermit’s skin, steamed his clothes to something approaching dryness, and when he looked at the jungle front, the gloom and opacity seemed to boil off. He saw rolling clouds of leaves, and palm trees flinging out their plumes, and vines hooped like ship’s rigging from one mast to the next, and even a dome of lilac near the jungle’s crown. So rare to see any blossoms in this sheer, shadowless front, and yet there they were, stained-glass pebbles of light in a silent ocean of green.

Maybe Father’s right, he thought. Maybe we’ll make thirty kilometers today.

Normally he would never have dared such a hope, but the current was strong beneath them, and his oarsmen, João and Simplício, were rowing freely and sweetly. Trigueiro, Kermit’s yellow mongrel, was crouched alongside him in the front of the canoe. The river breeze was blowing the dog’s mouth open, and the saliva that dripped from its black gums registered as the perfect antidote to despair.

A further blessing: Rondon stopped only twice that morning for sextant sightings. The work was quickly done—horizon captured in one glass, sun in the other, latitude and longitude jotted down in Rondon’s journal—and they were back in their boats, and the breeze came full behind him, and the river, for once, forbore to wind. Slowly, the forest drew back as if to consider them, and the land on either side erupted into bouldered hills and hissing green mountains.

Kermit felt his eyes traveling up the battlement of cliffs and trees, resting at last on a high promontory—halfway to the sun, or so it appeared. Fastening his eyes there, he wondered—idly at first and then with a mounting intensity—if someone at this very moment was looking down, watching him pass. Watching the whole expedition. What a strange sight they must have been! A small band of bedraggled white men, outnumbered by both their porters and their trunks, hustling northward down a twisting ribbon of black water, with an air of deep intention. Looking for something, but what?

Even if Kermit could have communed with that distant observer, how could he have begun to explain? They weren’t looking for anything or anyone in particular. They were merely attempting to see where this river would take them.

On each side, the canyon walls continued to surge up, and for a minute or two Kermit had the impression that the river was decanting in response, that they were traveling down a chute, not a river, and it would speed them farther along than they could ever have imagined. Twenty-five kilometers, just as the Colonel had said. Thirty.

He did then what he always did when hopeful. He pressed the packet of letters against his sternum. He closed his eyes and thought of Belle. “Not long,” he whispered.

And then, from a hundred yards off, came the old roar.

In later life, he would find it impossible to explain just how dismal that sound was. How it shrank the soul. It was only water, after all. Water rushing down a terrace of rocks. But to the men of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition, that sound was the death of all hope, because it meant rapids.

Rapids that were, ninety times out of a hundred, too steep—too treacherous, too violent—for their unwieldy dugouts. Rapids that would force them to put down their paddles and haul all the canoes to shore.

Then the real work would begin.

Fourteen men would ply themselves against the jungle’s densest thickets, using their machetes to hack out a primitive road along the riverbank. They would corrugate it with a couple of hundred logs. They would twine rope around their waists. Then, with the aid of a block and tackle, they would portage every last one of those 2,500-pound canoes around the rapids and then winch them back down, inch by inch, to the water.

In theory, it was an irritation, an obstacle. In practice, it was spine-cracking, muscle-rending, life-draining work, conducted under the probing stinger of every insect in the Amazonian jungle.

The dangers were great. One misstep, and a man could crush a toe or a hand or tumble into the river—or disturb a coral snake from its slumbers. Beneath their feet, the makeshift paths wore down into ledges of sandstone that gouged wood from the canoes’ keels, and if the lesions grew deep enough, they would have to set the boats down and caulk the cracks and let them dry and then hoist them up once more. This was not a labor of minutes. It was a labor of hours—of hours upon hours. It could take them three days just to travel seven hundred fifty yards.

And so this sound—the mere sound of rushing water—was more than Kermit could bear on this particular March morning. He closed his eyes. He waited for Colonel Rondon’s stentorian cry.

“Barcos para a beira mar!”

Boats to shore.

Not even staying to see if his command was followed, the little autocrat had already leaped onto the first square of dry land, and he was striding down the shoreline, looking to see exactly how steep the rapids were and how far they stretched. But as far as Kermit was concerned, this was a mere formality. He knew what Rondon would conclude: The canoes couldn’t be risked. The nightmare would begin again.

From behind, Kermit could hear the Colonel calling after him.

“Didn’t you hear? Come to shore.”

He looked at João and Simplício. They had lifted their paddles from the water; they were just awaiting the word. As Kermit listened to the roar of the water and the roar of the Colonel, another sound rose up inside him. A pair of words.

I … won’t.…

He wouldn’t lose the rest of the day to portaging. He wouldn’t go to sleep tonight knowing they were no closer to their final destination. Knowing that Belle and the rest of the world were as far away as ever.

With a violent twitch, he cast his eyes toward the fall line. He peered through the shroud of mist, seeking … a harbor … a counterargument—something to prove Rondon wrong.

The seconds ticked away, the water began to slap and churn against the canoe’s keel, the camaradas shifted uneasily on their benches, and Kermit was on the very verge of giving up, when something hard and fixed and tangible rose from the mist. He blinked, refocused. Land. A tiny island, surging up from the teeming water. Splitting the river in half.

The calculations sped through his brain. What if this island gave them a vantage point for riding the rapids? What if it actually diverted the falls to one side and left an easier passage on the other? Wasn’t it worth at least exploring?

But he knew what Rondon would say. And he knew what his father would say. And he heard himself say:

“Nós não vamos a beira mar.”

We’re not going to shore.

“Senhor?”

Simplício was staring at him with a mask of bafflement, and in his brown eyes was an expression so thick and bovine and unyielding that it became in that instant a symbol of everything Kermit was contending against. With a flash of teeth, Kermit pointed to the island that was now rushing toward them. He shouted, “Lá! Vá lá!”

The paddlers gave each other the briefest of looks. Kermit knew what they were thinking. The island was at the very brink of the falls. If they missed it, the whole canoe would go right over. But when Kermit repeated the order, they dropped their heads and dug in their oars and steered as straight a course as they could, and such was their skill that, within seconds, the boat was lodged on the island’s southernmost margin.

“Ha!” cried Kermit.

He left Trigueiro in the boat and clambered over the side, grinning at the feeling of sand and wet rock beneath his boots. He crept forward, waiting at every moment for his instincts to be confirmed.

And then he stopped.

He was staring down a fifteen-foot drop. Below him lay only howling water and bubbling heaves of foam.

His error was now blindingly apparent. The rapids would be no easier to breach here. The island hadn’t altered the river’s direction or force at all, just bisected it. On either side of him, the falls raged with equal ferocity.

“Damn,” he muttered. “Utter damnation.”

It wasn’t just the shame of guessing wrong, of having to weather Rondon’s frown. It was something worse. He had, to all intents and purposes, stranded his boat. There was no way forward, no way back. Their only hope was to guide the canoe back to shore and hope they weren’t swept over the edge.

This was the hope he clung to now as he darted back to the canoe and leaped in. “Lá!” he shouted, pointing to the margin of sand where the Colonel and the rest of the expedition were even now standing, gazing at the boat’s plight in a helpless spectatorial thrall.

“Um,” called Kermit. “Dois … três…”

Their doom was sure from the moment they pushed off. João and Simplício plunged in their paddles and beat as hard as they could against the current, but before they had made it halfway to shore, the boat began to whirl like the hands of a clock. Then, with a shudder, it jerked back into axis and headed straight for the falls.

In the midst of the spray and roar, Kermit dimly perceived that João was no longer rowing. He was hurling himself into the teeming water. Only now did his purpose become clear. He had grabbed the hawser rope and was trying to drag the boat to shore. But the riverbed was too slippery beneath his bare feet. Struggle as he might, he couldn’t keep his balance, and the current tore the rope from his bleeding hands, and the dugout, relieved of any further obligation, streaked downstream.

Trigueiro barked. Kermit and Simplício exchanged the briefest of looks. Then the river took them all.

Never in Kermit’s memory had water been such a punishment. It slammed his sun helmet over his face. It grabbed him by his jacket and dragged him to the river’s bottom and, every time he found a crevice of light, it snuffed the light out.

His eyes swelled against their sockets, and the cold crawled into his bones as the black water swept him downstream, as easily as if he were a bird’s nest.

He could actually taste the bubbles of his own breath. Somewhere, though, in his extinguishing brain, he sensed that the river was growing calmer, that the eddies and whirlpools were giving way once more to a single straight current. This current was now, in a spirit of chivalry, bearing him up—so that, with just a slight effort, he could lift his head above the river’s surface.

And with that single motion, all the agony of his still-living body flooded in. The spikes in his lungs, the vise around his head. The torment of these eyes, opening once more to the sun—and discovering a single stark outline.

A branch.

Afterward, he would be unable to recall the moment of grasping. He remembered only the effort it took to haul himself free. To pull himself up, inch by inch, with all his senses blazing—and then canceling one another out. So that he slipped straight from agony to unconsciousness.

*   *   *

WHEN HE AWOKE, THE sun was frowning from the end of a long tunnel. He felt sand in his fingers … water at his ankles. Something else—neither sand nor water—baptizing his face.

Trigueiro.

Half-gargling, half-sobbing, he pulled the dog’s head toward him. Then from out of the woods came a measured tread. A pair of boots, unnaturally burnished. Rondon.

“Bem,” he said at last. “Você já teve um esplêndido banho, hein?”

You have had a splendid bath.

Kermit’s first instinct was to laugh it off—or brazen it out—as if he’d been caught with a pack of cigarettes by a Groton prefect. Then he remembered who he was. Not his brother Ted. Not his brother Archie. He was Kermit Roosevelt: a young man incapable of charming his way out of any situation.

As this realization leached through his oxygen-depleted brain, other things winked into clarity. His gear was gone. His beloved Winchester .405 was gone. The canoe! Dear God, the canoe was almost certainly destroyed. It would cost the expedition days to make a new one. The conclusion was obvious. Thanks to Kermit’s rashness—a young man’s rashness—a detour of three hours had stretched into a sojourn of several days.

By now Trigueiro’s tongue had become a kind of torment against his skin, and yet he hadn’t the strength to push the dog away. He could only lie there, waiting for the reproach that was his due.

But the only thing Rondon said was:

“Aonde está o Simplício?”

Kermit blinked. He propped himself up on his elbows, gazed upshore and downshore. Simplício was nowhere to be seen.

“He was…” With a great expense of energy, Kermit raised himself to his feet. “He was right next to me.…”

Rondon’s stare was as baleful as Kermit had ever seen it. What a relief to look over the colonel’s shoulder and see João—sopping from his own bath—galloping toward them. João would know. He’d seen them go over the falls. He’d followed them the whole way. Tell them, thought Kermit, squeezing his eyes shut. Tell them.

But the words that came out of the camarada’s mouth were identical to Rondon’s.

“Simplício? Aonde está o Simplício?”

*   *   *

FOR THE REST OF the afternoon they searched. They thrashed the river with their paddles. They traveled downstream as far as a mile, canvassing both shores. They hacked notches out of the jungle front just in case Simplício had been thrown clear.

By day’s end, the search parties had netted only a single paddle, chipped but still intact, and a box of rations. Their calls had long since given way to whispers: “Ele está perdido.” He is lost.

But around the campfire that night, they whispered something else.

Assassino.

And lest there be any doubt about the assassin’s identity, they would lift their heads from time to time and cast dark looks in Kermit’s direction—looks that stopped just short of insurrection. The whispers built into murmurs, until Colonel Rondon himself rose and silenced then with one peremptory motion of his forearm.

That night, in his journal, Kermit wrote: Simplício was drowned. Such a bare sentence. His pencil hovered over the page, touched down again and again. No more words came.

He closed the book and lay on his cot, listening to the frogs and watching the mosquitoes land, one by one, on his exposed arm. Silently cataloging them: anopheline … culex.

“You mustn’t blame yourself,” said the Colonel. He was sitting up in his own cot, smearing his face and neck with fly dope. “He doesn’t blame you.”

Kermit closed his eyes. “Rondon, you mean?”

“Naturally.”

“For a second, I thought you meant God.”

The Colonel huddled around that and then, with a chuckle, said, “Do you suppose there’s a difference?”

Kermit said nothing.

“The point is,” the old man continued, “I’ve spoken with our great leader, and there was no sense of—no need to advocate on your behalf; he considers you entirely exonerated. He understands, Kermit. You were trying to do the right thing by all of us. It’s obvious, it’s self-evident.…”

Kermit was quite sure that, in Rondon’s mind, in Rondon’s heart, he was not exonerated. But the Brazilian was a pragmatic man, disinclined to jeopardize the long-term success of his expedition by alienating its illustrious co-leader. It was for Father’s sake—for Father’s sake alone—that Kermit would escape punishment.

“I don’t care,” he said at last. “I don’t care if Rondon blames me. I blame me.”

“Now, see here. I won’t have any of this morbid self-pity, do you hear? We all embarked on this expedition—every single one of us—knowing we might not come back. That is the first proviso in the explorer’s code.”

“So it is.”

“And may God strike me down, but…” He paused. “If I’d had to choose between you and Simplício, you know which way I should have gone. The point is, it wasn’t my choice. Or yours. It was Destiny.”

Destiny, thought Kermit. What is that?

It was a question he had yet to surmount. Or maybe it had just shrunk to a smaller question: Why had he reached for that branch?

Even now, looking back, he was amazed at how calm he’d been in the face of death. Not in the manner of a soldier, as his family might have preferred, but in the manner of a monk resigning himself to the Maker’s plan. All fears, all regrets washed away. He was ready. Yet when the branch presented itself, he had grasped it without another thought.

Only now, hours later, could he discern what had risen up in that moment: The image of Father. Father standing over his son’s drowned carcass. Father telegraphing the news to Mother. Father, in his sable suit, hoisting up one corner of the coffin …

That was all it took. Kermit reached for that branch. Now the Colonel could carry on, as great men must. And Kermit could go on being a great man’s reflection. For a second, he had a vivid, almost erotic image of that branch pulling away at the last second. Of his own water-swollen body borne along to its destined end.

“Enough chatter,” said the Colonel. “A few hours’ sleep always does wonders, I’ve found. You’ll have a whole new perspective on things come morning. Good night, my boy. Twenty-five kilometers tomorrow! Mark my words.”

*   *   *

THEY HADN’T THE TIME or energy to build a new canoe, so the next morning Colonel Rondon politely asked Kermit to join him in his. Stepping toward his new seat, Kermit heard Rondon speak, for the first time, in English. Two words.

“After you.”

*   *   *

THE NEXT DAY—AT the point where latitude -11°57' met longitude -60°20'—the Rio da Dúvida suddenly widened, and the boats began to swirl atop an unguessed current. On their port side, the dark solemn forest broke open. A blanket of espresso-colored water, whitecapped by wind, came rolling toward them.

“Novo rio,” murmured João.

It was indeed a new river—a tributary, materializing from something like nothing—and, at seventy feet in width, easily the largest tributary they’d come across. Rondon celebrated the moment in his usual way: by dragging out the sextant and taking a sighting. They set up camp at the confluence point of the two rivers. The next morning, Colonel Rondon used the Orders of the Day to make a signal announcement. The mysterious waterway along which they now stood would henceforth be known as the Rio Kermit.

There followed an interval of stunned silence. Then, grinning like summer, the Colonel slapped his son on the shoulder. “You’ve arrived, my boy! Into the gazetteer with you. With both of us, I should say!” For Rondon had already christened the Rio da Dúvida the Rio Roosevelt.

After breakfast, Kermit walked very deliberately to the shore of his new river. The rains had swollen it to such a level that most of the boulders and fallen trees and branches were submerged. All that was left was a silvery skin and the wrinkled reflection of the lightening sky.

He thought then of the signpost they had left behind to commemorate Simplício—the signpost that the jungle would tear down in a matter of weeks. The only consolation Kermit could find in that moment was imagining the dead man still alive … still traveling … beneath the surface of the Rio Kermit.

Simplício returned that very night, in Kermit’s dreams, his arm outstretched, his skin glittering with terror, his mouth opening as if to scream—but nothing came out except bubbles of blood, and each bubble carried the same word.

Socorro … socorro …

Help … help …

 

Copyright © 2014 by Louis Bayard

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